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March 19, 2002

Professor explores hidden meanings of money

Money, the old saying goes, can't buy you happiness. But for many it can buy a sense of achievement, status and power.

"It's an instrument people use to make social comparisons," according to Amy Mickel, professor of organizational behavior and human resource management. Her research findings suggest that some people use money as a scorecard to determine their level of success as well as to judge their status in comparison to others.

"Obviously people want money for its exchange value," Mickel said. Yet some people are driven to acquire money far beyond what they require to satisfy their day-to-day needs. "There's also these hidden motivational attributes of money," she said.

Mickel said those hidden attributes are founded in the symbolic value of money. "It's not about the money. The dollar amount represents something else," she said. People attuned to the symbolic value of money are looking for things beyond sheer wealth.

"They want status, they want power, they want to feel they're successful and they have achieved. In work organizations, money often symbolizes these attributes," she said.

While many management gurus talk about increasing employee performance through a variety of non-cash rewards, Mickel said money is still the most commonly used incentive by employers. As a result, understanding the motivational aspects of money is essential for organizations seeking to improve employee performance.

"How does an organization distribute money and what is its symbolic value?" she asked. For example, a company may offer cash bonuses for meeting certain goals, but who is eligible for the bonuses and how they are awarded can influence the symbolic value of the money. "If cash rewards are given to high performing employees by the CEO in a ceremonial fashion-that money has a lot of meaning," she said.

But, she noted, while money is an incentive for a lot of people, it does not motivate everyone.

"A lot of the time there's this blanket statement that money motivates, but people have very different attitudes about money," she said. "People want other things, too, such as feedback or recognition."

Depending on their preferences, people who have different attitudes toward the value of money also tend to migrate towards different kinds of careers, Mickel said.

"It's usually not the number one reason for making career choices, but it's still an important one, usually in the top five," she said.

Her research findings suggest that those who highly value money and place a great deal of importance on money tend to congregate in fields where money is central to the industry, such as the financial industry.

"I worked for a stock brokerage firm," Mickel said. "Money was everything for them. Everyone wanted more money than the broker next to them."

She also worked for a firm that ran hiking and biking tours and the attitude toward money was markedly different.

In conducting her research, Mickel was surprised to find that people were happy to talk about money and their attitudes toward it.

"It's perceived as this taboo subject but, in reality, people want to talk about," she said. "People have opinions about money."


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